Life & Culture

VE Day and the Jews: Moment of mingled joy and grief

VE Day marked the defeat of Nazi Germany and the formal end of hostilities in Europe.


Seventy years ago this week, on May 8 1945, many British Jews said the shehechayanu blessing to give thanks that they had survived to see that day. It was Victory in Europe Day, which marked the defeat of Nazi Germany and the formal end of hostilities in Europe.

This was the culmination of a period of anticipation, stretching over Pesach a month before. The festival of freedom therefore had a special meaning in 1945. There was also a profound conviction among many Jews in the Allied forces that Pesach should be celebrated in Germany.

Jewishness should raise its head from the devastation all around. There were therefore sedarim in locations of long-time Jewish settlement - in Frankfurt, Cologne, Treves and Worms. One seder was held in the conference room in the Breeson Hotel, Bad Gotesberg, where Hitler had negotiated with Chamberlain in 1938, and presided over by a Jewish chaplain, Sidney Lefkowitz of Richmond, Virginia.

A week before VE Day, Hitler's suicide had led to expectations that the long nightmare would swiftly be over. This was accompanied by a bitter triumphalism. Some 60,000 British Jews had participated in the British armed forces. Over 3,000 were killed in action. As the harrowing stories of Nazi bestiality and the efficiency of its extermination machine were seeping through, a JC editorial reflected:

"Had Hitler established himself triumphantly on these shores, there can be no question but that he would have planted his concentration camps and crematoria here, too… beside his achievements, (the Grand Inquisitor and persecutor of medieval Spanish Jewry) Torquemada's sink almost into nothingness."

The audience rose to its feet to sing God Save The King

Hitler killed himself on the afternoon of 17 Iyar, according to the Jewish calendar, a few hours before the onset of Lag b'omer - when mourning is traditionally abandoned for celebration. Such symbolism was understood by all Jews and there were even suggestions it should be transmitted in Hebrew classes to children as part of their education.

While the actual number of Jews murdered in the Shoah was not then known, there was a growing realisation that this figure was growing exponentially. The first testimonies of survivors, liberated from Dachau on April 29, had begun to reach London.

Sàndor Regner, a middle-weight wrestling champion from Budapest and a Warsaw University philosopher, Professor Josef Muskat were just two inmates who related how Dachau's prison population of more than 30,000 had been brutalised until the very moment that the Americans arrived. The chief surgeon of the Nagyvarad hospital in Hungary, Dr Wilhelm Molnar had been beaten to death by SS guards on the day of liberation.

The showing of scenes from within the death camps in the spring of 1945 stunned London cinema audiences into silence. It was perhaps only then that British Jews fully began to appreciate how lucky they were in that it was only 20 miles of clear blue water which had prevented a similar fate befalling them in 1940.

While non-Jews often looked upon the stacked bodies of the dead and the emaciated ones of the living in a broad, universalist, quasi-religious sense, British Jews understood it personally. For them, it had been literally a matter of life and death. The revelations of the Shoah transformed many Jewish Britons into British Jews.

By chance, King George, his wife, Queen Elizabeth and the princesses Elizabeth and Margaret visited the East End of London the day after VE Day. They stopped at Hughes Mansions in Vallance Road in Stepney where the penultimate V-2 rocket of the war had struck at the end of March 1945. The rattle of Nazism's death throes had been heard in the Jewish East End. Of the 134 people killed in Hughes Mansions, 120 were Jews. The eleven-year-old cousin of the writer, Anthony Rudolf, was killed and the journalist Jonathan Freedland lost the grandmother he never knew. The victims - who included 21 members of the Brady Youth Club - were buried during chol ha'moed Pesach.

Chief Rabbi Hertz had made a pre-Passover broadcast on the BBC and reminded his audience of the festival's traditional exhortation: "Next year may we all be free men".

For the East End Jews who rapturously greeted the Royals, this was a bitter-sweet rejoicing - for the relatives and friends of the Hughes Mansion dead and injured, it was not the deliverance from slavery unto freedom that they had envisaged.

While the main West London Reform synagogue had been running thanksgiving services throughout the entire weekend, Chief Rabbi Hertz instructed the United Synagogue to commemorate the end of hostilities on Sunday 13 May.

On that Sunday morning, the Board of Deputies abandoned their usual deliberations at 11am and there was a special service for all Jewish members of the defence forces held at St Johns Wood synagogue. And they were all requested to attend in full military uniform.

Hertz ordered his ministers "to bensch Gomel" during the service in order to thank God for deliverance from danger. It would then be recited in English:

"Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe who doeth good unto the undeserving and who has dealt kindly with me."

Life was generally returning to normal. The Committee for a Jewish Army organised a ''victory ball'' at Grosvenor House to raise funds and there was hardly a murmur when Oswald Mosley was released from prison. In British-ruled Palestine, a concert at the Edison Hall in Jerusalem, given by the Palestine Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Liverpool's Louis Cohen, was interrupted by the official announcement of VE Day.

The audience rose to their feet instantly and sang not only the Hatikvah and God Save the King, but also the Star Spangled Banner and the Internationale.

As in London, Jews in Palestine reacted in a strange mixture of happiness and resentment. After all, the railway lines to Auschwitz had not been bombed. The Allies may have won the war, but the Jews certainly lost it. The JC's Jerusalem correspondent wrote:

"(There was) a tone of solemnity in all the celebrations as the people remembered the millions of Jewish dead, who had been mercilessly exterminated, but who could have been alive, happy and rejoicing with their families in Eretz Israel - had not their path been barred by the terms of the White Paper."

Wishing to neutralise pro-German sentiment in the Arab world, the White Paper of 1939 permitted the entry of 15,000 Jews per annum for five years - after which Jewish immigration would require the permission of the Arab majority. This was enforced during all the years of persecution and now, in 1945, prevented displaced Jews from entering Palestine. One large gathering in Tel Aviv to celebrate the end of the war in Europe concluded with chanting: "Open Up the Gates of Palestine!" There were significantly no festivities in Nablus, Jaffa, Nazareth and Gaza.

The Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Palestine, Isaac Herzog, authorised the reciting of Psalm 118, which urges its readers not place their trust in princes, but to commit themselves to God alone. It proclaims: "I shall not die, but live" and recalls that although "the Lord had chastened me sore, He has not given me over unto death".

Primo Levi wrote his poem Shema shortly after VE Day and addressed it to those "who live secure in your warm houses".

"Consider that this has been:

I commend these words to you.

Engrave them on your hearts

When you are in your house, when you walk on your way

When you go to bed, when you rise:

Repeat them to your children.

Or may your house crumble,

Disease render you powerless,

Your offspring avert their faces from you.

This is our inheritance and our obligation."

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